30 November 2017

Ghana: New Law to Protect HIV Positive Ghanaians

Photo: The Conversation
HIV remains one of the continent’s most intractable health challenges. Tremendous progress is being made to understand the virus, the immune mechanisms that contribute to its control and for new antiretroviral drugs and vaccines to be developed to treat and prevent HIV.

Hopes are up among Ghanaians with HIV/AIDS that a new law will help fight discrimination. Lawmakers also want to make sure that people do not skip tests out of fear of stigmatization.

Ghana's new law aims at helping people with AIDS, many of whom continue to suffer rejection from their families and society. Fear of being discriminated against often stops Ghanaians from coming forth to test for the disease and prevent its spread.

Pastor John Azumah often preaches about HIV/AIDS on radio and TV. His message is clear: show compassion for those with the disease. Azumah knows what he is talking about. He and his wife were diagnosed with the infection years ago. He now uses his own story to fight stigmatization.

Azumah said there are several modes of transmission of the virus, which makes it difficult to ascertain how he was infected. "We were all tested on the same day. I have four children who are negative. But I and my wife are positive," he told DW. That does not keep the pastor from living a normal family life "eating with them, hugging them, washing together, sleeping on the same bed, sharing cups, will not infect them".

Fear and ignorance

The fear of being stigmatized has been the one major factor keeping people from being tested for AIDS. So far, all measures to prevent discrimination and protect the livelihoods of persons living with the disease have failed. The director general ofGhana's AIDS CommissionMokowa Blay Adu-Gyamfi believes that now people have no more excuses to discriminate on the basis of the infection: "It's been made a criminal offence to stigmatize anybody who has the virus. I think people stigmatize others out of fear and ignorance," she told DW, adding "We have trained people. We keep insisting that these days, with treatment available, you would not know a positive patient from a negative patient."

The new law means employers, service providers and individuals can no longer deny HIV/AIDS patients access to vital services such as healthcare, education, goods and services as well as jobs. Offenders can be fined or jailed.

Dire experience

Pastor Azumah is excited about the latest plans to criminalize stigmatization. He says many people have had their life ruined by discrimination. "Society does not understand HIV. Orphans whose parents have died of AIDS often are not taken care of by their families for fear of transmission, he told DW. His own experience is dire: "I was sacked from my first church, now I am in a new church."

This is not an exceptional experience. Raymond Ahorlu is with the association of persons living with HIV/AIDS in Ghana. He says many members are sacked from their employment, as well as denied food and services because of their illness. Ahorlu says love and care is what people like him need most. "Know your status; be open to your partner. We are normal; we are human beings. They shouldn't stigmatize us at work or at home," the AIDS activist said.

Ahorlu is hoping the new law will help to change the trend. Its impact will be measured in the coming months and years.

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